Some friends of mine have been talking about the recent upheaval in Tel Aviv. I suppose upheaval is a nice way to say race riots of the kind the U.S. used to have on a regular basis to intimidate people of color by white folks marching in the streets, destroying their property, burning torches (and crosses), and from time to time lynching someone. I’ll avoid the comparisons of the Tel Aviv riots with the Nazis and Kristallnacht, as they are obvious and painful. On a good day, the difficulties of talking about Israel within a Jewish context are legion, and one always risks being labeled an anti-semite for criticizing Israel or being labeled an imperialist for supporting Israel. The rhetoric is heated, divisive, and in my opinion counter-productive. That said, I’m going to dare to dip my toes into the turbulent waters to talk about a particular trend that I see in current conversations about Israel, especially among younger people: the desire to somehow split the difference between the “two sides” of the issue, that there is an “extreme” right and an “extreme” left when it comes to Israel, and so the correct or best answer must lie somewhere in between the two “extremes.”
Without having an actual person or article to argue against, I want to in this blog just hold up for examination the (admittedly decontextualized) idea that taking a middle position between two political positions, i.e., the political “center,” is not only possible, but indeed the most desirable political position. The language of the “center” that I have heard invoked often over the past several years (e.g., in analyses of Obama’s presidency, in discussions about the economic collapse, even about torture policies) poses some serious problems for me, both in terms of the ethics involved and in terms of its political efficacy to solve our collective problems. Just on the surface, I would observe that sometimes the center is the desirable position; but sometimes it is not. Sometimes the center is the best choice; sometimes it is the most dangerous. I remain unconvinced that the center position (whatever that might be) is going to be the best possible answer to the ethical problems of the state of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians or to its internal inequalities with its castes of partial and incomplete citizenship for arabs, refugees, converts, civilly married and mixed-marriages, etc.
To begin, I disagree with the valorization of the center as such. Arguments for the value of the center per se fail, for me, in that they make of the center a political end-in-itself, as somehow superior to any other political position per se. This makes the center into a kind of received or pre-approved morality or politics, excused from the burden of vetting its own values or policy positions. Empirically, the political “center” only exists relative to the political range of its social and historical context, so the “center” is a moving target as you jump from place to place and through history. Such a moving target cannot be said to be the best position, then, in any particular case, anymore than a right or left position can be taken as the de facto best answer to any grounded political problem. The center, moreover, is in fact just as ideological as any other political position. But the ideology of the center is often more insidious, because the center more often than not favors the status quo and resists change; the status quo is often the “hidden” ideology, that is, the ideology invisible to itself because it is the ideology of the habitual, the already-is. Choosing the center, then, doesn’t free you from any of the pit-falls of the so-called “extremes”; rather, it places the onus of critique upon the center to justify itself in terms other than the status quo. This is not necessarily the case, but looking for example at the last three years of Obama’s presidency, that seems to be true of what is currently the center in the U.S.
The problem for me comes not in the center as a position, but when the center is a valued as an end-in-itself, when the center is the default political position, valorized for its very character of being “between” or “in the middle”; here the center has become what is valued, rather than the contents of the specific political position. The center risks becoming in practice a means to avoid having the hard political and value conversations of a particular issue or within a specific context; it is seen as a position of wisdom, as if slicing the political baby in half to find the middle will automatically give one the best policy or value position.
While a careful consideration of a full range of political values and positions is the sine qua non of a healthy democracy, the normative claim that we should always end up in the center—a claim often facilely made in television “debates” about policy (or by my students in their papers)—in practice actually forestalls a careful evaluation of the range of values and positions, since we already know normatively that the center is the “correct” ending place of our evaluation. Such a normative claim for the center both forecloses the democratic process of deliberatively arriving at best policies—we need to be able to evaluate the range of possibilities and pick the best one, not simply the “center” one— and in effect often defaults to favoring as little disruption to the status quo as possible.
I think of middle-class white folks during the mid-century American Black Equality (Civil Rights) movement, for example, who as a group argued for blacks to stop protesting, use the courts, be patient and wait for change to happen. The primary value of the center is to make transitions and policies the least discomfiting and disruptive for those whose lives are relatively stable and good in the status quo. They weren’t against black folks have equal treatment under the law; but they also weren’t in favor of black folks demanding equality. So they, the sages of the middle, sought the answer somewhere between Jim Crow and Black Equality. We only have to look to the early 19th century “gradualists” to see how that middle way would have worked out.
Another problem with the valorization of the center is that it relies on positing a left and right that are somehow equivalent, both equally valuable and equally problematic. But empirically, they are not. Both left and right represent a range of values, practices, and policies that can be evaluated in terms of ethics and efficacy. The strategies and tactics of various political movements and ideologies (wherever they fall on an already problematic dichotomous left-right scale) differentiate them fundamentally and they can and should be evaluated accordingly; both the real and possible outcomes of policies (a consequentialist perspective, I suppose) as well as the ethical implications of specific practices and policies must be the focus our judgment. The most intellectually dubious normative is to judge a political position based on how closely it allies to the center.
In the case of Israel, it is not the left clamoring for exclusion of non-Jews, gerim, and Reform American Jews (let alone refugees). It is not the left with a stranglehold on religious institutions ranging from marriage to adoption to education to military service. It is not the left building settlements while dissembling to the public and the world. I see a right wing that has dominated Israeli politics since at least the early 1980s. I do not see a left in power or a left dominating political discourse in Israel (let alone American discourses about Israel, which is dominated by a love-it-or-leave-it or be called an anti-semite ideology). Nor do I even see a unified vision for the state of Israel on the left; rather I see a range of possible values and policies to the left of the status quo—and likewise to the right. So arguing that the two sides are equal and equally dangerous doesn’t make sense on the ground. And arguing for a “center” makes no sense in that context.
To be clear, I am not saying that the left is innocent or necessarily desirable. Far from it. Rather, I am saying that it is not the same as the right, in morality, outcomes, or practices. And I am saying the “middle way” wants to have its cake and eat it too, while pretending that it is itself non-ideological, a peacemaker (if you’ll excuse the King James Christian word), the “wise” who sees Israel more clearly than the “extremes”—when in fact, as I said above, it is just as ideological as any other political position. In the case of Israel, the so-called moderate center has the dubious distinction of having enabled for nearly 30 years the increasingly far right control of both politics and religion within Israel, to continue the expansion of settlements, to continue exclusion of non-Jews from the state, etc.
In both the U.S. and Israel, the “center” position more or less amounts to, as I said above, favoring the status quo while refusing responsibility for the consequences of the “centrist” political positions. In the real world, that could amount to the potential end of the state of Israel, in my opinion, for continuing on its present course will inevitably result in the demise of the state, or at the very least its final decline into the unapologetic colonial oppressor and exploiter its Arabic enemies have been accusing it of being for the past 60 years.
Recently when discussing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and “Footnote to Howl” (here’s Ginsberg reciting) in an American culture course, students got up and left the class when the conversation turned to how Ginsberg uses gay sex as metaphor and imagery. Contextually, we had just come out of a few days of discussing Cold War conformity and domestic “containment,” as well as C. Wright Mills’ concept of the “happy robot” from White Collar. [Earlier this semester, students had also gotten up and left class during a conversation of orgasm and female sexual agency in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.] I’ve been teaching about sexuality in my classes since 1998, usually integrating the issues of power and normativity surrounding sexuality into other topics (I haven’t had the chance to teach a course on culture and sexuality since 1998). I’m not bothered by student discomfort in the classroom; I am however troubled by the willful refusal to engage with the bothersome facts and ideas.
Like many scholars in that bleed-over space between humanities and social sciences, I see my role in the classroom as being more than a dispenser of information. As a sociologist (trained in interdisciplinary culture studies, American studies, and history as well) I see one of my primary pedagogical goals as being to help students develop their “critical thinking skills.” And many university level courses ranging from biology to Women’s studies, from Physics to art history can challenge students learned perceptions, bringing habitual patterns of thinking and doing to light. As anyone who has ever taught knows, it can be very uncomfortable. But in terms of learning and pedagogy, I’m okay with students being uncomfortable with course content.
The phrase “critical thinking” is so banal as to be meaningless at this point, so I feel it bears some further explanation from my personal pedagogical approach. I do not mean a bland ability to spot someone’s politics in a newspaper article; nor do I necessarily mean the ability to scan a poem. Rather, what I mean is the ability to step outside one’s own experience and habits and see the social structures, power relationships, ideologies, and statuses that produced them and limit them on a day to day basis. To step outside oneself and engage C. Wright Mills’ sociological imagination is no mean trick, and takes practice, exposure, and modeling to fully blossom. And even then, it requires students to be in what cognitive scientists term “conscious problem solving” mode, which involves effort, deliberate and purposeful thinking, abstraction, and will to execute. [Of course, we must admit that a perfect abstraction away from the self is not possible, in my opinion; but that it is a worthy end-in-view that enables worthwhile humanistic research.]
To this end, it often requires a shaking experience of some kind for people to think outside themselves. This can be tricky, as jolting people out of their comfort might raise ethical questions, and because they can resist the process. It should go without saying that heteronormativity structures and pervades a classroom. The students (and teachers) bring it with them and enact and reproduce it in the room, including all the privileges and powers that it bestows upon its adherents (if you’ll excuse the religious metaphor). There are many ways that a teacher can pedagogically lay these structures bare in the classroom, but my personality and teaching style tends toward the frank and the brash intrusion of queerness into a course design overall or into a particular discussion. Over the years I’ve had mixed responses, including students calling me faggot in class and writing homophobic comments in my teaching evaluations. But generally speaking from a pedagogical standpoint, my students learn to point out the systems of power, privilege, subordination, and oppression around genitals, bodies, desires, and pleasure.
But with “Howl,” male-male sex—specifically and explicitly, butt fucking and blow jobs—is central to the thing itself, and not a pedagogical choice. It is a queer production by a queer man at a time when deliberate shaming, ostracism, jailing, financial ruin, institutionalization, and suicide were the public face of homosexuality. It is in its writhing litany of the pain and foreclosure of American society in the 50s, among other things, a responsa, an apology, a hagiography to the queer. Ginsberg’s lost generation are those
who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose gardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may
The transposition of public gay sex reveling in its abjection with Jewish symbols of holiness (seraphim) and with Whitmanian symbols of “spiritual democracy” (semen and grass) challenges the reader (the student?) to demand difficult answers from the domestic containment of the 1950s, and indeed, from the pro-gay marriage campaigns of today.
By broaching these sexual topics and throwing them out there for students, I challenge them to see the ways that assumptions about desires and bodies creates imbalances of power in the society they live in. And it makes them squirm. But in a world where heteronormativity blocks Ginsberg’s sanctification of gay male sex—not to mention Chopin’s longed-for full female sexual agency—they can always simply refuse it, turn their backs on it, and slam the door behind them. And there was really nothing I could do to protect the handful of gay students in the room from that rejection.
Last Saturday (31 March 2012), I presented the second paper to come out of my ex-Mormon project (1), entitled “‘It Felt Like a Cord Snapping’: Mormon Emotionality and Emotional Reframing among ex-Mormons.” The more I have been immersed in this second round of coding and analysis, the more excited I am about the findings. Emotionality is the range of beliefs and practices surrounding emotions, giving intelligibility and inciting expression and social behavior; Mormon emotionality thoroughly shapes adherents’ life experience, making it necessary for them to reframe and transform their emotionality as they leave Mormonism.
To understand this transformation, I must begin with an analysis of the Mormon context or “situation”; to wit, the specific ways that Mormonism structures emotionality by making bodily sensations intelligible, naming them, and giving them social significance, i.e., turning feelings into Mormon emotions (2). I argue that Mormonism overestimates (3) emotions, locating all evaluation of morality and knowledge within the purview of emotionality. This in turn creates a personal practice of constant self-scanning for emotions, an emotional vigilance among adherents, as well as a social practice of using emotions to judge and constrain others’ behavior and well-being.
During the Q&A session, several people in the audience objected to my characterization of emotional vigilance as something uniquely Mormon. Three specific objections were given: one person argued that we all constantly scan ourselves for emotions, or rather, that such emotional awareness is constitutive of modern life; another objected that this kind of emotional scanning is similar to patients or clients in a mental health, doctor-patient relationship; and a third person objected that this might be similar to any highly observant religious group with tight social bonds, making a comparison to Hasidic Judaism. In the moment, I responded quite simply that my intuition is that Mormon emotionality is indeed different; that as a microsociologist, I tend to see the specificities of groups. I also reflected back to the commenters that what I was hearing is that, whereas I had been focusing on the specific case, I may want to step back and see connections and overlaps with other forms of emotional practice coming from other social spheres or groups.
Although the uniqueness of emotional vigilance is a minor part of my overall argument, I took the feedback seriously and have spend the past day mulling the objections over. Upon reflection, I think I must stand by my argument that Mormon emotionality produces a particular kind of emotional vigilance that is emphatically Mormon in its make-up and meaning. Taking each of the three possibilities posed in the Q&A, I see parallels and similarities; but I still see major differences.
Probably the easiest case to consider is that of other religious communities. Having studied religiosity off and on for the past 10 years, I can say with a relative confidence that Hasidic (4) emotionality is quite different from Mormon emotionality. Given that Hasidism views embodiment, sin, forgiveness, truth, joy, revelation, etc., so differently from Mormonism, it is not that much of a stretch to see that, even if Hasidism produced an emotional vigilance (which I don’t think it does, frankly), it would be of a radically different character and for different social ends, than that of Mormonism. Within a religious context, I think that perhaps the closest you might get would be evangelical Christianity, with its belief in the gifts of the spirit. But there as well you find dramatic differences in the experience of conversion (born again) and communion with the spirit, as well as the means to discern truth and morality, that would make its emotionality and any kind of emotional vigilance quite different from that of Mormonism.
The second objection, however, poses a more difficult case for me. Although the therapeutic relationship itself is clearly different from Mormon emotionality, there is a transformation of emotionality in both the process of therapy and the process of leaving Mormonism. My informants reported a significant amount of self-awareness of emotions vis-a-vis Mormonism, specifically in the two areas of truth (knowledge) and morality (good/evil). All of the informants discussed one or both of these areas; and most of them talked about the experiences of constantly watching themselves for the feelings that would be “emotionailzed” in an acceptably way within Mormonism. Indeed, this self-surveillance was a key part of Mormon adherents’ lives; and consequently awareness of it is a key part of leaving Mormonism (at least for those who become unbelievers). Having only a limited knowledge of the literature about mental health clients/patients (Goffman and Foucault), my educated surmise is that the mental health process would provoke an intense self-scanning of the individual, one that requires, by its nature, a self-reflexivity, a consciousness, and a reframing (especially in cognitive therapy, where reframing is an explicit project), that is, creating a new emotionality. It would seem, then, that in a general sense, there are some parallels between a therapeutic emotionality and ex-Mormon emotionality.
There are, however, some key differences. The therapeutic relationship doesn’t produce a full cultural emotionality of itself; rather, it seeks to lay bare the patient’s existing emotionality, create a new, therapeutic practice of emotional vigilance and surveillance (sometimes even requiring a rigorous recording of emotions in “feeling journals”), and transform it into something deemed more “normal” or “healthy” with the help of the expert guide. As an alternative/new religious movement, Mormonism is a fully developed culture unto itself, including its emotionality, which children learn as part of their development and which converts buy into from their very first discussion with missionaries (5). Secondly, the therapeutic relationship is, in many ways, teleological, that is, it is moving toward a known end; whereas the process of leaving Mormonism has no emotional end known in advance to the apostates. In some ways, it occurs to me as I write this, the emotional transformation is an effect of the leaving Mormonism, rather than its explicit goal (although many of my informants reported that when they adhered to Mormonism, they had a longing to “feel better”).
The third objection that all of us in modern societies engage in a kind of emotional vigilance poses a different kind of sociological problem: namely, that Mormons are always embedded in larger social groups. My informants are nearly all North American (from the U.S. and Canada); and in all cases, Mormons are always to varying degrees bi-cultural, working to be “in the world, but not of it,” circulating in “gentile” contexts (sometimes more easily than others) but always with the knowledge of their “chosenness” and their responsibility to be a “light unto the world.” This means that the ex-Mormons in my study are also culturally identifiable as American and Canadian (and, not insignificantly, white).
There is a kind of emotional vigilance of late (post?) modern society, what Christopher Lasch has called the “therapeutic culture of consumerism” (6). In the post-Fordist, late capital, consumerist world, Lasch’s theory posits a focus on narcissistic pleasure, hedonism, that can be enacted through consumerism. This is the oft criticized, but structurally embedded, practice of constantly evaluating one’s state of happiness and judging the phenomenal world based on one’s level of happiness (7). That is indeed a kind of emotional vigilance, one tied deeply to structures of capital, I might add. Further, stepping back from Lasch’s theory and thinking about a broad critical historical literature on the self-help movement that began in the early 19th century and really took off during the 1960s, I definitely would argue that the dominant culture’s emotionality includes a kind of emotional scanning. Indeed, the literature on emotions generally points to the fact that it’s a pretty human thing to do to watch one’s emotions.
So the question that remains is whether or not the Mormon version of emotional vigilance is shared with that of the dominant culture, or if it is a specifically Mormon practices. The easiest answer I can give to this is that, for my informants who spoke about emotions after Mormonism, all of them reported a different, new emotionality, that is, a different emotional practice, characterized by ease and relief at not having to always be on emotional guard. All of them reported a reduction in the salience of emotions generally (by rejecting the Mormon meaning of emotions), and therefore, in my analysis, a reduction in their emotional vigilance.
But I want to go a step further here, and think about why the Mormon emotional vigiliance is different. The baseline human emotionality (which is only a theoretical construct, given that there is no such thing as a human without a social context that builds a particular, located emotionality), I would argue, is at a lower frequency than Mormon emotionality, precisely because Mormonism overestimates emotions; or to say it differently, Mormonism attaches a hyper-salience to emotions that provokes a higher intensity of scanning and surveillance. As far as modernity is concerned, Mormons in North America clearly take part in the narcissistic consumer culture. I see no evidence that Mormons are any less consumers, on average, than other North Americans. That means that Mormons are, in certain contexts, seeking their own happiness through consumerist means. I would argue, however, that these two emotionalities co-exist within an adherent and that they overlap and complement as well as contradict each other. But the Mormon emotionality is its own distinct thing, arising in a specific context, with different structure, meaning, salience, and emotional practices attached to it. Whereas I absolutely see Mormons participating in consumer emotionality, and I can see in my informants how the consumer “happiness” can bleed over into their Mormon emotionality (e.g., I feel happy and excited about buying that house, therefore, it must be god’s will that I buy the house!), I cannot see that they are the same thing, that the Mormon practice of constant, intense self-scrutiny of emotions in order to be able to categorize the phenomenal world into its Good/Evil and True/False schemas is the same as the dominant culture’s. To emphasize the point, my informants all described dramatically different emotionalities post-Mormonism.
So yes, emotional reframing occurs in leaving other religion; and in therapy. But the emotionality of the religions themselves are different; and therapeutic relationships create a practice of vigilance while trying to reframe the emotionality of the “patient.” And yes Mormons are also “normal” consumers. But I believe my data demonstrate that, among ex-Mormons unbelievers, their experience of emotional vigilance when they were adherents of Mormonism was quite different than their emotionalities post-Mormonism. To step back from my own very narrow research project, I think that there are some interesting implications here, namely, that undergoing a major cultural shift—joining or leaving a religion, migration, education, interracial marriage, etc.—is always accompanied by a transformation of emotionality, to some extent.
(1) This is a grounded theory project that studies people who leave the Brighamite branch of Mormonism—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah—and become unbelievers to some degree, describing themselves somewhere in the atheist or agnostic camp. I collected interview data through semi-structured interviews. A first round of coding, followed by axial codes rendered a theory of the psycho-social process people go through when leaving Mormonism; I tend to err in the direction of parsimony, so I only claim that the model works for people leaving Mormonism toward some level of unbelief, but I suspect that very similar processes might obtain in cases of anyone leaving an alternative/new religious movement. Building from that first round of coding, I discovered the centrality of emotions in the process, and went back to the data to try to explain Mormon and ex-Mormon emotionality.
(2) I’m currently working through where I stand in the theoretical literature about emotions themselves. In the near future, I will post to this blog a discussion of the debates within the field and where I might land. For the moment, I agree with Jonathan Turner that a sociology of emotions cannot ignore the mounting evidence that there is a core evolutionary and biological emotionality among our species. I rely heavily on Martha Nussbaum’s 2001 book, Upheavals of Thought (especially the first seven Chapters) for an excellent synthesis of the philosophical, neurological, social-scientific, and psychological literature on emotions. To give an over-simplified gloss of my current working theory of emotion: 1) there are embodied, physiological sensations that arise, which can be involuntary or incited feelings; 2) the acculumated knowledge and experience of the individual, including their social and cultural position, enable categorization of the feeling, rules for how, when, where, and to whom to express that emotion, and the significance or salience of the feeling: Emotion; and 3) practices and social behaviors arise in conjunciton with emotions, which can in turn (re)incite feelings (go back to 1).
(3) In the Freudian sense of over-valuing, or holding something in higher esteem than it should or might be held.
(4) The hasidic movements within Judaism are themselves a rather diverse bunch, with multiple schools and rebbes and movements under the label Hasid, so it is actually likely that, for example, the Lubavitcher emotionality may be different from, for example, a Satmar emotionality.
(5) Missionaries are actually trained to push people toward emotional vigilance by constantly asking possible converts to scan their feelings for positive emotions, which the missionaries then identify as “the Holy Spirit,” and which they assign the significance of “revelation of truth.” Thus, converts are inculcated into the Mormon emotionality from the beginning, and actively and consciously trained in emotional vigilance.
(6) It is important, here, to keep this notion of therapy from that of the medicalized therapy I discussed earlier. They are related, but not the same thing.
(7) Over the past 10 years or so, positive psychologists have argued that this consumer version of happiness has actually short-circuited our ability to know what contentment is and to discern when life is good, because we expect (inappropriately) that happiness be a constant high-level feeling of joy and pleasure. See Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis for an example of this kind of work.
From the About page:
It is now the social scientist’s foremost political and intellectual task – for here the two coincide – to make clear the elements of contemporary uneasiness and indifference. It is the central demand made upon her by other cultural workers – by physical scientists and artists, by the intellectual community in general. It is because of this task and these demands, I believe, that the social sciences are becoming the common denominator of our cultural period, and the sociological imagination our most needed quality of mind. —C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination
In the mid-20th century, C. Wright Mills argued that the promise of social sciences is to help us understand out experience of life, including our emotional responses to those experience. For Mills, this was a broad project that included humanistic and scientific modes of thinking; and he insisted that, to fully understand and explain human society, there must be a deep understanding of contexts, histories, values, and experiences within any phenomenon. Mills eschewed the monicker ‘sociologist’ in favor of ‘social scientist’ in his efforts to disavow disciplinary limits to theoretical and methodological thinking.
It would indeed be arrogant of me to claim to be such a social scientist, but Mills’ definition of social sciences has greatly influenced my own view of what it is I do professionally and intellectually. This blog is a repository of my thinking, reading, research, and ideas along these lines. My topical interests range from religion to sexuality, from cognition to emotions, from mass culture to “serious” art. My theoretical and methodological perspectives range from historical to sociological, political-economic to queer theoretical, symbolic interaction to cultural history, American pragmatism to Weberian objectivity. My postings will range from reviews of peer-reviewed research, to updates and trial ballons of my own research, to thoughts on popular culture and literature. I seek in my thinking to understand the relationship between human experience and the systems of meanings (intelligibility) that humans create in ongoing activity-undergoing with their environments (as described by John Dewey, Nature and Experience). Finally, I tend to resist political or moral imperatives and enjoy poking at sacred cows, academic, religious, and political.
I welcome civil and engaged discourse and disagreement from across intellectual, political, and cultural perspectives, but reserve the right to block comments that devolve into inappropriate ad hominem or evangelizing.